Out with the Old: New Worlds

Wickeds, remember our theme “out with the old”? Let’s talk about world building. We’ve all written several series. When you’re creating your new world, what’s out to make it new?

Jessie: I love the topic of world-building, Julie! Thanks for asking about it! I find myself starting most of my novels in a place that leads me to a time and then to the sorts of people who would be there. All of that is fed by research into the time and place. I like to build my worlds based on the small details of daily life and so I spend a lot of time reading primary source materials, looking at advertisements and art from the time and place of the novel, and reading novels written during that time. I find that a familiarity with all of that ordinary stuff makes a world build clearly in my mind with far less deliberate effort than it would otherwise require.

Barb: It must seem like world-building is very simple for me. I have three series, all contemporary, all set in fictional versions of real New England towns. The Death of an Ambitious Woman is set in a town very like Newton, Massachusetts, where we brought up our kids. The Maine Clambake Mysteries are set in a town very like Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where my mother-in-law owned a bed and breakfast in a Victorian house we eventually owned. And the Jane Darrowfield Mystery series is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We lived for fourteen years in adjacent Somerville. But the worlds have given me more than enough to sink my teeth into. Fictional Busman’s Harbor is rural and highly seasonal. In densely-populated Cambridge, Jane and her friends drive two miles to a restaurant and pass through five distinct, named neighborhoods.

Liz: For my first two series, I drew heavily on both what I knew about communities like Frog Ledge and Daybreak Island, then filled the rest in with how I wanted it to be. Like Barb, Daybreak is seasonal and it feels like building a new world for every season there. But the real challenge has been in my latest series where I’m building not only a small town world but a world in a whole other realm at the same time. It’s fun because I get to use my imagination in ways I haven’t yet in my books but also kind of daunting because there is so much to think about! And once you make a decision, you can’t really go back so it better be the right one.

Sherry: Almost everything I’ve written has been set in a place I’ve lived in or visited — even the unpublished manuscripts. They aren’t places I’m from and so I can explore that whole “new to a place” thing that can create so much conflict. Like Liz, I tend to use the real place as a jumping off point and then give it fun new things. Like in the Chloe Jackson books, I’ve added the Redneck Trolley and all the heritage businesses. I remember Barb’s advice when I was writing a proposal for a series. She said, “Make the world as big as you can.” It’s great advice so you don’t limit your place that your writing about.

Julie: When I first started writing, I didn’t understand the complexity of it, and how important decisions are. The logistics like geography are where I start. I love that Jessie and Edith world build from history. Historical fiction readers demand accuracy, so you can’t make it all up. Liz’s new realm fascinates me–she can make up the rules, but she has to remember them from book to book. And Barb uses her world as a character, especially Busman’s Harbor, which is so different depending on the season. I tend to start with a place I know, and build from there. When I wrote the Clock Shop series, I was driving through a town in Western Massachusetts and stopped the car–this was the place where I could start. Goosebush is based on Duxbury, MA, where I grew up. I’ve changed the geography to suit the story, but that’s where it started.

Edith/Maddie: It’s so true, Julie and Jessie, that historical fiction demands accuracy. I spend a lot of time checking words and vehicles, food and fads, hats and history. When I build a world in the past – and both times I’m using real places – my real freedom comes with the characters and what they do, although they need to follow at least some of the cultural behavioral norms of the times. Both of my contemporary towns are fictional, so anything goes in South Lick and Westham, as long as I remember where I put things in the previous books! Westham – also a seasonal community – is loosely based on the real town of Falmouth, but if I don’t like where a store or bank is, I change it.

Writer friends, what do you toss when you create a new world? What did you learn that you moved forward? Readers, when you’re reading a new series, how do you enjoy learning about the world?

16 Thoughts

  1. Both of my series, contemporary and historical, use real places – Fayette County, PA and Buffalo, NY. Where I get creative is the little businesses I make up as needed by the story (I won’t commit a crime in a real place). But what is funny is that twice now I’ve made up places that actually exist. The first was the Lucky Dog Café in Confluence, which turned out to be a real restaurant. In the second Homefront Mystery, I thought I made up a drugstore on a corner in the First Ward. A woman in my dad’s church told him not only did a drugstore really exist there in the 40s, her father worked there.

    Some day maybe I’ll write a story in a truly made up setting.

  2. I learned the hard way that world building in a real place can be difficult. The plot of one of my unpublished and unsubmitted manuscripts revolved around some very unique houses that actually existed and the novel was set in a real town. When the book was in editing, the houses were unexpectedly (to me) torn down. Gulp – story done. Some day I may re-set it, but it was discouraging to say the least.

    My Florida series are set in real towns, but I’m currently writing a series based in New Jersey that is set in a fictional town. Lots of research involved to get the details right, but I’m having a ball.

    1. That’s so hard about the house–and a good lesson. Making up a town offers such freedom. One of my books takes place in Boston, and I have Sully go to a renamed bar, but anyone could figure it out who knows the area. It closed during COVID. A small detail, but a good reminder to me. Make it up.

    2. In my Maine Clambake series the protagonist’s mother works at Linens ‘n’ Pantries, in Topsham, a real town. A number of people in local library talks and emails have let me know the real Linens ‘n’ Things has moved from Topsham to Brunswick. And I have wondered, do I need to also move the fictional store where the fictional person works?

  3. Two of the things that make for a great new series is imagination and attention to detail. The “facts” of a book need to be accurate – like popular events of the past, phrases or an object used during that time. When an author has taken the time to work actually things, expressions or events into a story of that time frame – whether old or in present time – makes the story interesting and in some small way a learning tool. The imagination is how they can work these facts into the story seamlessly adding greatly to the story.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  4. When I read a book, my imagination takes me there. I appreciate details about the area, like the roundabout /wheel in Goosebush. When a character is walking somewhere, I am right there walking along, so having stores pointed out to me or houses or woods/parks is helpful. My father was in the construction business and often came home with blueprints, so from an early age I learned how to “build “in my mind a three diminutional image out of a paper blueprint of what was being built. Just as timeline is important in a story, so are those details about the environment. When a book plays out in your mind, it is just like watching a really good movie…at least it is for me! Actually, it is better!

    1. I love the blueprints and building. My father did home reno, but was good at teaching me how to see possibilities in housing and construction, which has served me. I agree–I like to have enough information to build the walls but then let my imagination take over.

  5. Moving Linens and Things can be an entire sub-plot for the mother and what she wants to do!

  6. That’s a hard question. I’m not sure there is anything in particular I enjoy learning about a new location for a series. There’s something in every series that makes it fun for me. Sometimes it is the characters even if it isn’t the actual location. That is part of the world, too, although I know this was focused on the location.

  7. Like Judy, when I read a book, I’m walking next to the characters and see the book as a movie. To me a good book is one in which the setting is a character. As long as the facts are correct, I’m all for letting the writer’s imagination go wild.

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